View of the Cathedral in the Vieux Lyon, a quarter on the right/western bank of the Saône River, and of Presqu'Ile (peninsula), a quarter between the Saône and the Rhône rivers which was developed during the XVIth century; the large square is Place Bellecour
The place of the Belle Cour is very spacious, observable for the view it affords, so various and agreeable, of hills, rocks, vineyards, gardens,
precipices, and other extravagant and incomparable advantages, presenting themselves together.
John Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence in 1644
Lyons has upon the whole the air of a pleasant town. It contains including the suburbs about two hundred thousand inhabitants. In point of wealth and population it is the second city in France. In the general aspect of its shops and stores (those of Presqu'Ile) it reminded me more of New York than any city I had previously seen on the continent.
(Episcopal) Reverend John Alonzo Clark - Glimpses of the Old World - 1840
The specificity of Lyon is its progressive expansion towards the east while preserving, at each stage of its growth, the richness of its earlier dwellings. Unlike many other cities where the centre was destroyed in order to be rebuilt in the same place with new architecture, Lyon's centre has shifted location, enabling the safeguarding of whole districts whose permanence renders the history of the city visible on the buildings themselves.
From the description of the criteria utilized by UNESCO to include Lyon in the World Heritage List in 1998. Today the majority of the population of Lyon lives in the four arrondissements (city districts) on the left/eastern bank of the Rhône River.
(left) Rue Saint-Jean; (right) small statue of a bull after which Rue du Boeuf is named; it is attributed to Jean de Boulogne aka Giambologna (1529-1608), a sculptor best known for his works in Florence
Vieux Lyon consists of a narrow strip of land on the right bank of the River Saône where the inhabitants of the Roman town on the Fourvière hill were forced to relocate in the IVth century after they were no longer able to maintain the aqueducts which supplied it with water. It became the centre of the town until the XVIth century. It is crossed by two long and parallel streets having a north-south direction: Rue Lainerie/Saint-Jean and Rue Juiverie/de Gadagne/du Boeuf which end in the square of the Cathedral.
In fine, this stately, clean, and noble
city, built all of stone, abounds in persons of quality and
rich merchants: those of Florence obtaining great privileges above the rest. Evelyn
Lyon experienced a major economic development in the XVth century when two yearly fairs attracted merchants from the Flanders and Italy, at the time the most flourishing countries of Europe. In 1466 the Medici of Florence, a family of rich bankers, opened a branch at Lyon and were followed by other Florentine bankers and merchants. In 1494 the yearly fairs became four and they all lasted a fortnight. The Thomassin were rich cloth merchants. The Guadagni were exiled from Florence by the Medici. Their banking activities in Paris and Lyon were very profitable and in Lyon their name became a synonym for a huge fortune (It. guadagnare and Fr. gagner mean to win, to make a profit). Other Florentine families who opposed the Medici settled at Avignon.
Renaissance palaces in Rue Juiverie in the northern section of Vieux Lyon: (left) Hotel Paterin aka Maison de Henri IV because of a bust of the king; (right) Hotel Bullioud with a gallery designed by Philibert Delorme, a French architect, after his stay in Rome in 1533-1536
The Florentine bankers were followed by other merchants from Lucca, Bologna, Genoa and the overall architecture of Vieux Lyon shows evidence of these close contacts with Italy. Because of the lack of space all the buildings of this neighbourhood, including those of the richest families, had many floors. The prestige of the landlord was expressed by the imposing and elegant staircase of the courtyard, rather than by the street façade. Traboules (from Latin transambulare, to walk across) are a particular aspect of the urban layout of Lyon; they are passageways which allow people to move between parallel streets across private courtyards, so the staircases were visible to all.
Maison du Crible ou de la Tour Rose in Rue du Boeuf: (left) portal; (right) courtyard
The design of this building is attributed to Sebastiano Serlio, an Italian architect best known for his treatise on architecture and after whom a particular type of window is named. He lived at Lyon in 1549-1553, at a time when the town was beginning to experience a new phase of its economic development. Most of the bankers went bankrupt in 1558 when King Henry II failed to repay a major loan they had granted him, but the economy of Lyon survived because King Francis I in 1536 had promoted the establishment of the first silk factories and the town soon became the most important European silk manufacturing centre.
Rue Saint-Jean: (left) Maison de Maurice Scève (a French poet 1501-1564); (right) Maison des Avocats
The trade of Lyons is very considerable, for
which it is advantageously situated on the rivers
Rhone and Saone, and in the neighbourhood of
Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. The chief
branch of their commerce is in silks and rich fluffs;
their silk they have raw from Sicily, Naples,
Florence, and the other towns of Italy, as also from
Languedoc and Provence; and after they have manufactured it, they send it to most parts of Europe.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
The silk industry was manpower-intensive and it attracted many workers from rural areas; the economic and political centre of the town was moved to Presqu'Ile, while the factories were established at Croix-Rousse on the site of the ancient Gallic settlement; Vieux Lyon retained a role in the life of the town only because of the Cathedral. The poor living conditions of the silk workers impressed Charles Dickens who visited Lyon in 1844 and described them in Pictures from Italy.
The houses are high and vast, dirty to excess, rotten as old cheeses, and as thickly peopled. All up the hills that hem the city in, these houses swarm; and the mites inside were lolling out of the windows, and drying their ragged clothes on poles, and crawling in and out at the doors, and coming out to pant and gasp upon the pavement, and creeping in and out among huge piles and bales of fusty, musty, stifling goods; and living, or rather not dying till their time should come, in an exhausted receiver. Every manufacturing town, melted into one, would hardly convey an impression of Lyons as it presented itself to me: for all the undrained, unscavengered qualities of a foreign town, seemed grafted, there, upon the native miseries of a manufacturing one; and it bears such fruit as I would go some miles out of my way to avoid encountering again.
visited the cathedral, St. Jean, where was one of the fairest clocks for art and busy invention I had ever seen. The
fabric of the church is gothic, as are likewise those of St. Etienne and St. Croix. From the top of one of the
towers of St. Jean (for it has four) we beheld the whole
city and country, with a prospect reaching to the Alps, many leagues distant. The Archbishop's Palace is fairly
To take a survey of the curiosities of this city you must begin with the cathedral, which is dedicated to S. John Baptist, and stands in the low part of the town near the river Saone, having a great square before it, adorned with a fountain. It is esteemed one of the best structures in France, though very plain, and without ornaments. (..) The archbishop is primate of Gaul. (..) The dean and canons take the title of counts, must prove their nobility by four descents. Their church-service is somewhat different from that of other places in France; they must say it all by heart in Gregorian song, and without organs. Nugent
In 1079 the Archbishop of Lyon was appointed Primate of Gaul in recognition of the historical importance of the town in Roman time when representatives of all the Gallic tribes gathered there every year. The construction of a Cathedral which was indicative of this high dignity began in 1180, but the alluvial soil upon which it was built hampered its completion and chronicles report the collapse of its rear part in the XIIIth century. In 1245 and 1274 it housed two councils which were attended by the Pope and in 1305 Pope Clement V was anointed there. His immediate successors often resided at Lyon, rather than at Avignon, but the Cathedral was finished only at the end of the XVth century.
(left/centre) Cathedral: other reliefs in the side portals all showing some fantastic creatures; (right) bronze reliefs in the Baptistery of Florence having a similar frame, i.e. a quatrefoil pierced at the angles by the points of an inscribed square; this shape can be noticed in many Late Renaissance fountains of Rome
In 1562 during the French Religious Wars, the Calvinists conquered Lyon and they destroyed almost all the statues portraying kings and saints which decorated the façade of the Cathedral. Their iconoclastic fury spared the many reliefs of some highly unusual square pillars in the portals. The Cathedral was damaged also in 1796-1803 when it was turned into a temple for atheism.
church is celebrated also for a great number of relics,
which are preserved here with great veneration. Nugent
The Cathedral of St John the Baptist retains a remarkable degree of stylistic homogeneity, despite the long period of construction. UNESCO
The Cathedral was initially built in Romanesque style, but the original design was revised by the adoption of Gothic structures. During the XIXth century it underwent extensive restorations/modifications which were aimed at giving its interior an idealized Gothic aspect.
Cathedral: astronomical clock
The clock on the right side of the
choir is esteemed a most curious piece of mechanism, and was made by Lippius, a mathematician of Basel. Nugent
I should abstain from mentioning the curious clock in Lyons Cathedral, if it were not for a small mistake I made, in connection with that piece of mechanism. The keeper of the church was very anxious it should be shown; partly for the honour of the establishment and the town; and partly, perhaps, because of his deriving a percentage from the additional consideration. However that may be, it was set in motion, and thereupon a host of little doors flew open, and innumerable little figures staggered out of them, and jerked themselves back again, with that special unsteadiness of purpose, and hitching in the gait, which usually attaches to figures that are moved by clock-work. Meanwhile, the Sacristan stood explaining these wonders, and pointing them out, severally, with a wand. There was a centre puppet of the Virgin Mary; and close to her, a small pigeon-hole, out of which another and a very ill-looking puppet made one of the most sudden plunges I ever saw accomplished: instantly flopping back again at sight of her, and banging his little door violently after him. Taking this to be emblematic of the victory over Sin and Death, and not at all unwilling to show that I perfectly understood the subject, in anticipation of the showman, I rashly said, 'Aha! The Evil Spirit. To be sure. He is very soon disposed of.' 'Pardon, Monsieur,' said the Sacristan, with a polite motion of his hand towards the little door, as if introducing somebody - 'The Angel Gabriel!'. Dickens
Manécanterie in a plate from "Alexandre de Laborde - The Monuments of France Chronologically Classified - 1816-1836"
Manécanterie from Latin mane cantare (to sing in the morning) is the choir school of the Cathedral, but until the XVIIIth century it was used as residence of the canons. It is the oldest building of Vieux Lyon as it is dated XIth century. It obviously was modified more than once, but the façade retains most of the original architectural features.
Laborde's inclusion of Manécanterie among the finest monuments of France led to its preservation. He did so at a time when medieval art was despised and Manécanterie was at risk of being demolished as it occurred to the building to its right.
Cafè du Soleil and nearby street south of the Cathedral
The Cathedral was built at almost the southern end of Vieux Lyon. In the early 1960s the quarter was at risk of being partially demolished to make room for a new large road, but eventually it was placed under the protection of the Law for the Safeguard of Historical Neighbourhoods and programs were implemented to improve its facilities. Today it houses theatres, clubs, cafès and restaurants.
The image used as background for this page shows a Renaissance window in Rue Lainerie.
Plan of this section:
Environs of Arles: Saint-Gilles, Aigues-Mortes and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Carpentras (Carpentaracte), Cavaillon (Cabellio) and Pernes-les-Fontaines
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Le Thor
Narbonne (Narbo Martius)
Pont-du-Gard and Uzès
Saint-Bertrand-des-Comminges (Lugdunum Convenarum)